Conservationist American Nun Murdered in the Brazilian Amazon

BRASILIA, Brazil, February 14, 2005 (ENS) - American Catholic nun Sister Dorothy Stang, who dedicated 35 of her 74 years to environmental protection of the Brazilian Amazon and the rural communities living there, died Saturday in a hail of bullets. She was killed at a small sustainble settlement of landless peasant families, 30 miles from the town of Anapu in the state of Pará, federal police said.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula sent federal police teams to investigate her death. The settlement where Stang was killed is part of sustainable development project run by the state government.

Police said they have identified four suspects in the murder, but declined to give their names. Police did say that two of the suspects were hired guns and the two other were the ones who paid for the murder. Pará police said that Stang was killed with eight or nine bullets in the head and the body and died before she could receive medical help.


Sister Dorothy Stang worked for human rights and environmental protection in the Brazilian Amazon. (Photo courtesy Katholische Hochschulgemeinde Linz)
The identification of suspects was possible due to the testimony of two people who were with Stang when she was shot. Both witnesses have been placed under police protection, officials said.

Brazil's Human Rights Secretary, Nilmário Miranda, told reporters that the police wanted to wait before naming suspects, but said, "Everything indicates that a local rancher ordered the killing: the gunmen's links, the history of killing contracts in the area."

Stang organized resistance to loggers' and ranchers' efforts to clear vast tracts of rainforest. The week before she died Stang warned Miranda that death threats had been made against her and other land reform workers.

Stang was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order that works for social justice and human rights on five continents. Stang worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, the Catholic Church's arm that fights for the rights of rural workers, peasants and defends land reforms in Brazil.

From Lima, Peru, where the Congregational Leadership Team of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur was meeting Saturday when they learned of the murder, they wrote, "Sr. Dorothy lived for the poor and died for them. Let us pray that her death is drawing attention to the violent oppression and will not be in vain.”

The order has contacted the U.S. State Department and requested a full investigation of the killing.

In August 2004, Stang spoke about the danger associated with her work. “It is not my safety but that of the people that really matters,” she said. “All of the Sisters of Notre Dame working in Brazil work very closely with our people and want to be a sign of hope. It is wonderful to be a part of this struggle and this is the contribution of Notre Dame.”


Peasants in Anapu carving a settlement out of the rainforest (Photo courtesy Katholische Hochschulgemeinde Linz)
While ranchers who opposed her called the nun a terrorist, friends and admirers named her the angel of the Trans-Amazon.

Anapu ranchers claimed she supplied guns to peasant farmers. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur called the claims "absurd and false."

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she had lived in Brazil since 1966. Stang had been in the Anapu area since 1972 and had become a Brazilian citizen as well as an American citizen.

She had received the "Honorary Citizenship of the State" from the state of Para, Brazil earlier this year in recognition of her work. She had commented to friends that threats of death had intensified since she got the prize.

Environment Minister Marina Silva who was in the Port of Moz to implement the Green Extractivist Reserve Forever, a project to substitute sustainable resources harvesting for logging, said the crime might be an attempt to intimidate the federal government because of its policies of protecting forested areas and strengthening the traditional communities of Amazonia.

Silva said that the government will not withdraw and nor be intimidated by criminals. "The blood of Sister Dorothy goes to water the Green Reserve forever," she declared.

The minister said she ahd asked that the government of Pará and the federal government conduct a rigorous inquiry into the killing.

Silva and others, compared Stang's murder to the killing of trade union leader Chico Mendes, a campaigner for the rainforest whose death in 1988 sparked worldwide outrage.

"Like Chico Mendes, Sister Dorothy refused to be intimidated and she paid an enormous price," said Paulo Adario, Amazon co-ordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace. "She selflessly worked for many years supporting the rights of rural workers, and defending the Amazon from reckless deforestation and we can't let her death be in vain."

The Brazilian Order of Lawyers, a nationwide lawyers group, had included Stang on a list of human rights workers who faced possible assassination.


Stang's body is loaded into a hearse after they autopsy in Belem. (Photo by Alberto Cesar Araujo courtesy Greenpeace Brazil)
"She had been on a death list for years," said Adario, "yet the state government of Para has failed to protect her. She was not alone either, as there are many others fighting against the forest destruction and the rights of local communities, whose lives are in danger. The violence and intimidation must stop. We cannot accept more martyrs in the Amazon."

On Sunday, Stang's body was flown 700 kilometers from Anapu to Belém, the capital of Pará state, for an autopsy. Today, she will buried in Anapu.

A Memorial Mass is being planned for mid-March at Mount Notre Dame in Cincinnati, Ohio. Preparations are also underway for a prayer service to be held in Washington, D.C. in her honor.

Para is the Amazon state with the highest murder rate related to land disputes. According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 1,237 rural workers died in Brazil from 1985 to 2001, and 40 percent of these deaths occurred in Para.